M1 Chinese Theatre Festival: History comes full circle

Chinese-language thespian Yong Ser Pin still remembers vividly how The Struggle, a play by the late theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun on workers' rights, was banned by the authorities in 1969, a fortnight before it was staged.

"The tickets were sold, the stage was rented and the show had to go on. We had to face the audience," recalls the 67-year-old, speaking in Mandarin to Life.

Then a 21-year-old car salesman, he and his fellow part-time actors hastily cobbled together a series of recitals and one-act playlets.

Next Thursday, history will come full circle for him as The Struggle finally gets staged at this year's M1 Chinese Theatre Festival.

"I never expected the play would be allowed on stage. But I suppose the authorities are more confident now. Society has changed and there's more room for discussion," adds the veteran stage actor, whose wizened face, knotted with age and an inscrutable sorrow, graces the production's publicity poster.

For the play's director Liu Xiaoyi, Yong is "the bridge between the past and present".

The play by The Theatre Practice, the company Kuo founded, traces the lives of families evicted from their homes by a landowner who wants to build factories. Years later, their children return to work in dismal conditions at the factories and must decide if they want to agitate for change. It is the only work of Kuo that has never been staged.

Liu, who won Best Original Script at this year's Life! Theatre Awards for his play Fluid, says: "It's The Theatre Practice's 50th anniversary this year, so we thought it was time to revisit this work.

"I wanted to explore our connections to this play so many years later. We realised the context that the play was written in is different from what's happening now."

His update of the play has three parts. The first part will feature excerpts from Kuo's original play; the other two parts are new and are set in the 1960s and present day.

Kuo died of liver and kidney cancer in 2002. His two daughters are carrying on his legacy.

Younger daughter Jing Hong, 44, who has a performing background in theatre and dance, will appear alongside Yong in The Struggle. The duo will play characters similar to themselves. Other actors include Doreen Toh and Hung Chit Wah.

Based in Austria since 2011 with her husband, IT engineer Dieter Okorn-Kuo, Jing Hong flew back to act in this production. For the past two years, she has performed in dance and theatre productions abroad, such as a re-interpretation of Jean Genet's 1947 classic The Maids at the University of Exeter.

She too grew up in the Theatre Practice, though she was born two years after the ban of The Struggle. She says: "Ser Pin and I have known each other for so long, but we've never had a chance to sit down and have a conversation about a period of time we shared and now, we're doing that. It's been eye-opening and emotional."

Liu adds: "I'm focused on three struggles in this play - the struggle between employer and workers in the original script, that between artist and authority, and man's internal struggle, which drives him to revolt. "

Kuo's elder daughter Jian Hong, 47, who is artistic director of The Theatre Practice, is helming the three-week-long theatre festival.

Consisting of six ticketed and three fringe events, it boasts a range of Chinese-language works, from an original children's musical to experimental works brought in from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Another production to look out for is Chronology On Death, which was green-lighted by the authorities here after half a year of uncertainty. The play deals with a pair of siblings who must manage the burial rites of their father, who was both Taoist and Muslim.

One challenge the festival faces is to attract audiences. Last year's edition drew 4,293 visitors, down from 7,783 in 2013.

Jian Hong attributes the dip to the July 2013 haze, as schools did not plan activities during the same period the following year. Last year, the festival was moved from August to early July.

She adds: "This year, we started planning earlier and we're more targeted in marketing. We're into our fourth year, so we're slowly building our presence here."

Noting the diversity of the audience, she adds: "We do have a core audience keen on experimental theatre. But we're offering a large spectrum of works to bridge the gaps between different kinds of theatre, so we hope more viewers will cross over."


The Struggle: Years Later
Creative Cube, Lasalle College of the Arts
When: July 16 to 26
Admission: $38 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)
Info: en.practice.org.sg/m1ctf2015/

Must-catch shows

Aside from Kuo Pao Kun's The Struggle, the M1 Chinese Theatre Festival boasts Chinese-language works ranging from an original children's theatre commission to a production inspired by Taiwanese aboriginal legends.

The Wee Question Mark And The Adventurer
(Directed by Kuo Jian Hong, written by Huang Suhuai and lyrics by Xiaohan)

This new children's musical is a swashbuckler about young adventurers who set out across the seas, set to the compositions of music arranger Julian Wong and Mandopop music lyricist Xiaohan.

Where: Flexible Performance Space, Lasalle College of the Arts
When:Thursday to July 19
Admission: $28

Chronology On Death
(Directed and written by Koh Choon Eiow)

Billed as a "controversial play that deals with religion and death", this production delves into the aftermath of two brothers discovering their dead father was both a Taoist and a Muslim and must decide on his burial arrangements.

Where: Creative Cube, Lasalle College of the Arts
When: Thursday to Sunday Admission: $38
Rating: R18 for mature content and coarse language

Into The Flood
(Performed by Sun Son Theatre)

This Taiwanese production, which incorporates ethnological music, puppetry and masks, is an environmental parable inspired by the flash floods that have struck Taiwan in recent years.

Where: Flexible Performance Space, Lasalle College of the Arts
When: July 22 to 26
Admission: $28

The Last Supper
(Performed by Hong Kong Repertory Theatre)

A mother meets her estranged son for a last dinner before her intended suicide and discovers he also plans to kill himself.

The dark comedy by Hong Kong playwright Matthew Cheng has been staged many times in Hong Kong and Beijing.

Where: Flexible Performance Space, Lasalle College of the Arts
When: July 30 to Aug 2
Admission: $38
Rating: Recommended for audience 16 and above.

Contains mature content and coarse language.

All events are in Mandarin with English subtitles. Book through Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

This article was first published on July 07, 2015.
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